How Christian Youngsters Are Forced To Engage In Liquor Business To Support Families

How Christian Youngsters Are Forced To Engage In Liquor Business To Support Families
Young men from Christian localities turn to bootlegging as an easier alternative to making money. The bleak scenario of economic opportunities forces many such Christians to jump into this clandestine business.

The Prohibition Order in 1977 established the sale of alcohol to Muslims as illegal in Pakistan. This ordinance also laid that the licensed trade of liquor could take place through members of non-Muslim communities. This explains why a large chunk of Christian youth possess liquor permits - widely seen as a 'filthy piece of paper'.

Oftentimes, the indulgence of Christian youth in this liquor trade is a result of discrimination and despair they face in availing mainstream job opportunities. Conversing with my friends from 66 quarters Islamabad (a Christian slum) I learnt that they feel they have fewer chances of professional growth due to their religious orientation.

The quota for minorities in government as well as the private sector remains disturbingly narrow and in practice recruiters prefer Muslim candidates, leaving the educated Christian community feeling betrayed. This is why a percentage of the Christian youth takes to other shady means of earning as an alternate route.

Dynamics of bootlegging in the capital slums

Easy access to consumption and purchase of alcohol is not possible in Pakistan due to the country being an Islamic republic. It is forbidden for Muslims and after the prohibition, there exists an ostensible legal barrier. However, liquor’s consumption is allowed to Pakistani Christians for which they have to get a license issued by the government.

Some young Christians, with access to the liquor market, misuse their permits as they buy liquor for their non-Christian acquaintances. These buyers are willing to pay heavy prices for the drinks. However, both the parties can be imprisoned for illegally buying and selling the liquor.

This despite the fact that these young men do realise that the chances of them being bailed out of the prison (in case of getting caught by the cops) are very low in comparison to their buyers who are mostly really rich and resourceful.

On being asked why they are willing to take such a risk and face the severe circumstances, a young boy who requested anonymity replied, “we just want to earn a living”.

Bootlegger becomes government employee

Akram Masih, a young Christian man living in Islamabad, had a similar set of circumstances. “After my intermediate (twelve years of education) I started looking for a job. But it turned out fruitless for years”.

He shared that it was a colossal challenge to support his education as his father did not have enough resources to pay the fees. “I have worked very hard to complete my degree”, Akram continued and made mention of the first job he found “it paid me 10,000Rs per month but barely helped in supporting a family of six members”.

Akram’s search for a decent white-collar job did not end. In fact, he still wishes to continue his education and get a professional degree. “My sisters were old enough and willing to get married but my parents were unable to marry
them off due to financial constraints. That helplessness led me to adopt illegal methods of earning which I did not want to indulge in”, he added.

Akram’s friend offered him money in lieu of selling liquor to the clients on his behalf to earn easy money. He immediately agreed. Within a few weeks, Akram had clients directly reaching out to him for supplies as he gained fame for providing genuine and original liquor.

“Within a short passage of time, I started earning pretty well. My family, friends, and acquaintances had no idea of what I was doing and wheref was all the money coming from”, said Akram. Many bootleggers claim that they keep their families in the dark concerning their involvement in the liquor business.

“During this time, I was constantly looking for a job as well, as I did not want to continue in that line of work for the notoriety attached to it. I was happy to see my earnings grow but deep down in my heart I felt dissatisfied with the illegal character of it”, Akram says.

With a sparkle in his eyes, Akram told that he finally received an interview call for a position that he had applied for. “Finally, a silver lining. I was extremely happy to be shortlisted for a position at a government institute that I had applied for some time ago”, announced Akram. It was a wonderful opportunity as I had always dreamt of getting a government job.

“I instantly decided to quit bootlegging and take up the job offer”, Akram Masih cuts out an exception because many young Christian men who are knee deep in the bootlegging business continue with it despite the threats. Akram mentioned that the amount he is earning now is a little less than what he used to make by selling liquor. However he’s happy and satisfied with what he does.

He informed that most of the community residents have not even passed their matriculation. Without basic education and technical know-how they can not possibly get decent jobs. There are hundreds of boys like him in the neighbourhood who struggled to get an education, but the lack of economic opportunity pushes them to take to rum-running. The structural discrimination has dampened their hopes of earning a decent living. “If we are welcomed and allowed in the system we would not want to indulge in shady options (bootlegging)”, another friend of mine in 66 Quarters explained.

Arshid Masih tries not to remember his bootlegging days

Another resident of the same slum in Islamabad started selling alcohol so he could meet the daily financial needs of his family. His father was not earning enough to sustain a family of five children.

He said that “I was a student of matriculation when I realized that I should be doing something to add to the family income. It resulted in a diminished interest in studies”, Akram confessed. He tried finding a decent job but without prior experience and incomplete education he could not compete well enough to find an opportunity to earn.

“Unwillingly I started selling drugs and alcohol, but my parents remained unaware about it. I continued in the bootlegging business for a year and was able to support my family”, he added. He also said that he “would not give them a portion of my total earnings for the fear that they might guess my means of making money”
In fact with the excess money I couldn’t help but drink more. The indulgence in gambling and other bad practices was a direct result of my company and clandestine liquor trade.

Akram’s tone grew emotional as he shared further about this bootlegging trajectory and revealed that one day his father came to know about the work he was doing. “He was so furious that he kicked me out of the home”. I slept on the footpath and reflected on my life, that night changed a lot in me.

“I decided to quit and returned to my family the next morning” Akram asked them for forgiveness, and with such strange swiftness that chapter came to a close.

He started learning how to operate sound systems alongside photography and videography. “I earned 100 rupees for each event because I was a beginner. That was very little or almost no amount, but I had peace in my life and my family was happy with me. My message to all those who come to this business of selling drugs/alcohol is that the terrible feeling doesn’t leave”.

Akram shared that some of his friends don’t quite believe that he is not a bootlegger anymore and ask for a bottle of alcohol every now and then, “I can only jokingly refuse, which i do”.

Bootlegging not limited to Christians

Steering past the stereotypes, we come to see several cases where the bootlegger belongs to the Muslim majority. The reasons behind entering this covert business posture may be unique to the individual in it. But the profession is not specific to Christians only. “The chain of persons through which I can buy and sell liquor is tricky because it’s illegal and everyone demands money”, revealed a Muslim bootlegger who has been in the business for a couple years.

In a country as ours where the youth bulge is significant it’s important to facilitate productive activities for the youth, so as to minimize the chances of their indulgence in illicit and immoral activities. Vocational training initiatives can also help Christian youth start their professional careers, instead of resorting to options like bootlegging.

Stigmatisation of Christians' identity 

Mary James Gill, a former Punjab MPA and minority rights activist says discrimination against Christians in terms of employment opportunities is fairly evident. "But the factor which leads to this discrimination is not just religion."

She says that it is not just about just religion, but overlapping of castes which are considered inferior is also a factor that leads to discrimination. "Christians from the untouchable backgrounds -- the 'churha' tribes -- who used to work as manual scavengers 150 years ago, are still employed in such positions despite their conversion," says Mary, quoting her research on the subject.

She mentions how there is a backlash every time a public ad seeks non-Muslim candidates for sweepers' jobs after which  a corrigendum is usually published, yet this discrimination continues. "This discriminatory attitude is embedded in the recruitment policy in government departments. The Punjab Health Department, for instance, says on its website that only people from religious minorities would be considered for sweepers' positions. The mindset that sees religious minorities as 'unclean' needs to be addressed at the policy level because the state itself engages in bigotry," she says.

Mary further told Naya Daur Media that a constitutional petition is being filed in the Supreme Court by minority rights activist to challenge every such move that requires only non-Muslims to be employed as sweepers.

In 2014, the apex court issued a landmark judgement that laid the foundation for the realisation of the rights of religious minorities. Seven years later, the verdict remains unimplemented.

Talking about the state of Christian youth in Pakistan, Mary said that the word 'churha' has come to be associated with the Christian community which has stigmatised their identity. "Christians from the 'untouchable' groups live in segregated neighbourhoods and lack property rights and even basic amenities like clean water and proper sewage system," she says, adding that slums adjacent to posh areas in Islamabad are in abysmal state.

Mary says this is why the Christian youngsters end up becoming drug carriers, bootleggers. "When they obtain their CNICs, they get hired as sanitation workers," she says.

Mary further notes that it is not just the society that pushes them into this kind of work because the government itself has shut its doors to members of the community. "Even government jobs of Grade 4 like data operators are not given to Christian youth. When they apply for such a position, the hiring authority tells them that sanitation job is available which they can get immediately," she says.

The former lawmaker called on the government to involve Christian youngsters in employment programmes. "Neither the society nor the state has even identified this problem, which is supposed to be the first step in addressing any form of discrimination," she says.

This piece has been published in collaboration with Ravadar, a blog series presenting the lives of religious minorities of Pakistan.